Constructivism on Display, Part Two

The Brief Existence of Constructivism

At the Paris Fair of 1925

The International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts was “international,” stressing the nationalism of the post-war period, but the French, the host nation, proved to be cautious with which countries were invited and included. The French government had officially recognized the new Soviet Union in 1924, so the invitation to the Exposition was belated, but the artists sprang into action. Along with Le Corbusier’s Pavilion de l’Esprit Nouveau, the Soviet Pavilion stood out as the two buildings resisting the blandishments of Art Deco and memories of early pre-war modern architecture. Only in these two buildings was the Bauhaus spirit manifested and only in these two buildings was ornamentation and decoration resisted for an assertion of the philosophy of Construction as Design. The Soviet Pavilion, which exists today only as a series of photographs, was a series of slices of architecture composed of slants and diagonals. The Pavilion was daring and simple: two triangular volumes sliced in half by a staircase. A glazed wall, windows stretching from roof to road, bend steeply to make way for a rising flight of steps. From the outside one could look through this sheet of glass and view all the exhibitions inside the building. Above the stairway, the series of diagonals crossed like swords above the processional also functioned like a faux set of roof beams supporting nothing, existing only as formal shapes. This stunning building turned the architect, Konstantin Melnikov (1890-1974) into a sought-after celebrity among the Parisians. Only Le Corbusier, a Swiss architect, working and practicing in Paris, had offered such an architectural work of such revolutionary impact. Perhaps because he was representing a far-away and still unfamiliar government, Melnikov’s offering was better received than that of Le Corbusier whose threat to the status quo in France was far more apparent.

Soviet Pavilion at the World’s Fair, Paris 1925

The best analogy to this building would be the contemporary design for the Wexner Center of the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, designed in the late 1980s by Peter Eisenmann. Eisenman took his abstract philosophical theories of deconstruction as applied to architecture and refused the architectural dictates of straight lines and enclosure for broken angles and opened walls.

The Wexner Center of the Arts

But Melnikov was using abstract two-dimensional shapes from painting as architectural slabs fitted together into a dynamic and daring pavilion. However, Melnikov’s working method revealed a deconstructive mindset, for his preparatory drawings showed that he played with geometric shapes which he broke up and reconnected through causal intersections. Indeed, much of the building was glass, buttressed by an occasional slab wall here and there. Topping the building was a tower of open work trusses, suggesting the Tribune of El Lissitzky. The skeletal projection was also a flag pole, and it should be noted, that, at the closing of the Exposition, the flags of all nations were ceremoniously lowered, except for that of Russia. For days afterward, the red flag with the gold hammer and sickle rode the late summer breezes. Clearly, Melnikov was experimenting with the language of architecture, as was Eisenman, almost one hundred years later, deconstructing the concept of “structure” in what was probably an experiment in formal language. Even Le Corbusier’s offering was conservative compared to the Russian architect’s design that was as savage and brutal as it was a fragile accumulation of teetering walls, leaning against each other. As if to emphasize the precariousness of the structure, a conglomeration of words suspended in air, somehow attached to the building, announced that this was the Soviet Pavilion. If anyone was in doubt, a hammer and sickle rose in the air, cutting into the sky. While he was in Paris, Melnikov gave an interview, recently translated, in which he laconically described his intentions:

This glazed box is not the fruit of an abstract idea. My starting point was real life; I had to deal with real circumstances. Above all, I worked with the site that was allocated to me, a site surrounded by trees: it was necessary that my little building should stand out clearly amidst the shapeless masses through its color, height, and skillful combination of forms. I wanted the pavilion to be as full of light and air as possible. That is my personal predilection, but I think it reasonably represents the aspiration of our whole nation. Not everyone who walks past the pavilion will go inside it. But each of them will see something of what’s exhibited inside my building all the same, thanks to the glazed walls, and thanks to the staircase that goes out to meet the crowd, passes through the pavilion, and enables them to survey the whole of its content from above. As far as the intersecting diagonal planes over the route are concerned, may they be a disappointment to lovers of roofs corked up like bottles! But this roof is no worse than any other: it is made so as to let in the air, and you keep out of the rain from whatever direction it may fall.

Interior of Soviet Pavilion

The Soviet Pavilion, with its interior exhibits, was a container that was a Constructivist “thing” or object that, in turn, held more “objects” from the utopian society. And yet, Melnikov’s design intention was never symbolic. He was concerned with the site itself only—where the building was located at the fair and the fact that the exposition was a temporary event, destined to be torn down. As the result of accepting the ephemeral nature of the placement, there is a thrown-together-soon-to-be-demolished temporary air of casualness about the Pavilion that reinforces the artist’s statement: “..why should a building whose function is temporary be granted the false attributes of the everlasting? My pavilion doesn’t have to keep standing for the whole life of the Soviet Union. It’s quite enough for it to keep standing until this exhibition closes. To put it briefly, the clarity of color, simplicity of line, and abundance of light and air that characterize this pavilion (whose unusual features you may like or dislike according to taste) have a similarity to the country I come from. But do not think, for goodness sake, that I set out to build a symbol.”

The Temporary Soviet Pavilion in 1925

In addition, as with the displayed objects inside, the object/structure was an example of faktura or the practicality of industrial materials used as materials without disguise or cladding or decoration. Glass was glass, steel was steel and wood was wood. However, although the architect intended the building to be read as an independent Constructivist object in its own right, the Pavilion was understood by others as a propaganda document, advertising the modernity of the USSR, a newly arrived political entity, which, by ingesting European modernism, had forged forward on its own unique path. Inside the Pavilion, the Monument to the Third International by Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953) rose toward the ceiling, pointing to the sky and to the future of the Soviet Union. Alexander Rodchenko’s Workers’ Club, which served as an interior room and exhibit and as an object all at the same time, followed the utilitarian and ideological philosophy that an experimental construction or an example of how studio “laboratory” work could become a practical object. An abstract sculpture could become a building, an abstract painting could become a pavilion, and faktura could be mobilized to build simple and useful tools for the workers to use. The Club, which is an ideal model, was conceived by Alexander Rodchenko (1891-1956) as a three-dimensional design for education and comradeship among workers. There is an exchange between the workers’ bodies and the activities practiced in the space: the long table is a communal affair, a place where workers congregate on both sides, facing each other. The worker is contained in an enveloping chair that curves around in a semi-circle, embracing him or her with the arms of comradeship.

Reconstruction of Rodchenko’s Workers’ Club

Rodchenko imagined these Constructivist objects to be comrades in their own right: friends and allies for the workers, working in unison with the laborers. Unlike the rather rigid and uncomfortable chairs, the tabletop could be altered. The top could flip up for writing or down for reading, but based on the photographs and reconstructions of this table, such alterations would have to be communal, at least on that side—everyone must read or everyone must write. And there are racks for magazines full of educational materials for the edification of the labor force. In describing these structures, Stepanova referred to them as “wall newspapers,” which like all the objects in the Club could be manipulated and controlled by the worker seeking knowledge. While newspapers dangle like towels from a white rack, Lenin peers down benignly from a photograph a year after his death. This is the “Lenin corner” with the photograph of the recently deceased and embalmed leader taking the place of the religious icon in the traditional Russian home. The corner is carefully designed, from the white square left blank, waiting for the requisite photograph, to the timeline constructed of a series of arrows. This corner was conceived of as more than a cult site where the worker was expected to peruse the archive of materials on Lenin that would, over time, accumulate as the heritage of the leader grew in Russia. In the place of religion, there was the cult of Lenin, who became the founding father about which all should learn and from whom all would be inspired. Rodchenko preferred the authentic record of Lenin, that is the many photographs taken of him to traditional portraiture. Lenin was modern, like the workers’ club and he was present, not in representation but in a substitute reality, hovering in the index of the camera’s record of his existence.

True to the desire to educate the worker, there is a speaker’s lectern and a movie screen, allowing the club to be turned into a site of saturation, where Communist philosophy could be absorbed by the now passive audience. As with his posters, Rodchenko demanded that the workers participate with and manipulate the media stands in order to obtain the information contained in the various stands. Above the heads of the activated workers, electric lights hang, symbolizing the goals of Lenin–to electrify and thus to modernize the nation and the desire to educate the people in the ways of Communism. There is an air of efficiency, from the simple and inexpensive materials used for the furnishings to the sense that the Club was completely transportable and could be set up in any available room. Time was precious and could not be wasted with fun and must be used for edification, put to good use in this Club that has everything but relaxation and enjoyment. The placement of the Club inside the Soviet Pavilion, suggesting an alternative to capitalism, in the City of Light, Paris. In Paris, one wasted time and sat at a sidewalk table and sipped a café au lait while chatting with friends and watching the parade of fashion down the boulevard. Such capitalist customs were a scandal to Rodchenko who was in Paris for the first and last time in his life. The contrast between the austerity and discomfort of the rigidly designed Workers’ Club and the long lunches enjoyed by Parisians could not be clearer: the Club was the Soviet rejection of Western decadence. It is impossible to miss the artist’s assertion of totalitarian control over the lower classes, their minds, their activities, their movements, and their time. The difference between the Leninist avant-garde and the Stalinist Socialist Realism is a distinction without a difference. It is clear, that, while the Workers’ Club was ostensibly a site of relaxation, complete with chess sets, this room was also a site of propaganda and control.

Writing about the Pavilion a few years after the Fair in the 1929 book, The Reconstruction of Architecture in the USSR, the artist El Lissitzky (1890-1941) said,

The first small building that gave clear evidence of the reconstruction of our architecture was the Soviet Pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair of 1925, designed by Melnikov. The close proximity of the Soviet Pavilion to other creations of international architecture revealed in the most glaring way the fundamentally different attitudes and concepts embodied in Soviet architecture. This work represents the “formalistic” [Rationalist] wing of the radical front of our architecture, a group whose primary aim was to work out a fitting architectural concept for each utilitarian task. In this case, the basic concept represents an attempt to loosen up the overall volume by exposing the staircase. In the plan, the axis of symmetry is established on the diagonal, and all other elements are rotated by 180 ̊. Hence, the whole has been transposed from ordinary symmetry at rest into symmetry in motion. The tower element has been transformed into an open system of pylons. The structure is built honestly of wood, but instead of relying on traditional Russian log construction [it] employs modern wood construction methods. The whole is transparent. Unbroken colors. Therefore no false monumentality. A new spirit.

The Soviet Pavilion 1925

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

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Constructivism on Display, Part One

The Brief Existence of Constructivism

The Years of Lenin

The word “Constructivism” was a Russian word that came from multiple sources in Russia and spread to Western Europe very quickly, as soon as the Civil War ended in 1921. In fact, the slogan of the 1920 Dada Fair in Berlin was “Art is Dead: Long Live Tatlin’s New machine art.” That same year, the term “Constructivism” was in circulation at the Düsseldorf Congress in May, where it signified a Bauhaus approach of using new construction materials rather than using conventional means of building and the Dada interpretation of anti-art or anti-traditional art. Constructivism in Russia, however, had an institutional home the job of which was to take the word from a name and an idea and to make the construction of a new art form a Soviet reality. That goal fell to the Vkhutemas, a new art school in Moscow, which sought to apply Constructivism to the Revolution and its needs. It was Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) himself who established the Vkhutemas institution in 1920 and gave it his qualified blessing by visiting the classrooms in 1921. Fairly or not, the Vkhutemas, an acronym for the Higher Art and Technical Studios, is often compared to the Bauhaus in that it combined industry and design and art under one roof. Like the Bauhaus, the school was the result of a merger between two pre-existing institutions, the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture and the Stroganov School of Applied Arts, but unlike the Bauhaus which was a very small school, the Moscow college had 2500 students compared to the 200 annual enrollment at Dessau. Like the Bauhaus, the faculty was distinguished, with artist Aleksandra Ekser teaching “color in space,” Alexander Rodchenko was in charge of construction, while Nadezhda Udaltsova presided over “volume in space.” Most famously, it was Varvara Stepanova who was in charge of the textile department. It was Stepanova, who stated the goal of her department and of the entire school succinctly as being “devising methods for a conscious awareness of the demands imposed on us by new social conditions.” However, Lenin was disturbed by the lingering presence of Futurism and Suprematism, evidence of a past era still present among the students and faculty. Seeking to reassure Lenin about the Vkhutemas, theorist Aleksei Gan (1893-1942) wrote Constructivism in 1922 a year after Lenin’s visit, stating that “Our Constructivism has declared unconditional war on art, for the means and qualities of art are not able to systematize the feelings of a revolutionary environment.” As the leading theorist and agitator, Gan was responsible for the phrases that would be linked to the post-revolution Constructivist movement and its anti-art stance. “Art is dead!” he insisted, “There is no room for it in the human work apparatus. Work, technique, and organization!”

The Revolution in politics had acted like an earthquake on Russia, transforming the nation, and for a time, the new Soviet Union was a very good place to be an artist or a designer or an architect. For a few years, one could dream; one could create a new world; one had the freedom to create new objects for new purposes. In 1928, an American, Alfred Barr (1902-1981), active in the nascent New York art world, decided to visit Moscow to witness the new movement of Constructivism, where all disciplines intersected, giving birth to new forms. Upon his return, Barr, who would become the first director of the new Museum of Modern Art, wrote, “We feel as if this were the most important place in the world for us to be. Such abundance, so much to see: people, theaters, films, churches, pictures, music and only a month to do it in for we must attempt Leningrad and perhaps Kiev. It is impossible to describe the feeling of exhilaration; perhaps it is the air (after Berlin); perhaps the cordiality of our new friends, perhaps the extraordinary spirit of forward-looking, the gay hopefulness, of the Russians, their awareness that Russia has at least a century of greatness before her, that she will wax while France and England wane.”

To that end, Aleksei Gan set up the First Working Group of Constructivists, also known as “artists-engineers,” turning theory into application. In response to the need to honor Lenin, in Saint Petersburg—Petrograd–the Constructivist artist, Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953) built the Monument to the Third International in 1919, a model for a structure that was never built. With his Constructivist experiments, Tatlin himself was the source of inspiration at At 1300 feet, the Monument, which was to have been the tallest structure in the world, was often on display, becoming the image of all that the Revolution aspired to. But this monument, like the unfinished project of the avant-garde in Russia, was never built and remains an unrealized requiem for unfinished dreams. In point of fact, while Western scholars toil to reconstruct the lost years of the avant-garde after the Russian Revolution, the present-day Russians themselves have a complex and ambiguous relationship with the past. The Russian schools hardly touch upon the Great War, now considered an imperial conflict best forgotten. Even in the centenary of the October Revolution of 1917, there is a gap between the sanctity Lenin and a respect for those years when he was in charge. This conceptual gap seems to be caused by the long reign of Stalin, during which he crushed the hopes and dreams of ardent believers in a social revolution during decades of terror. While evoking the memory of Lenin, Stalin wiped out evidence of his accomplishments, suppressing or killing the artists and architects he had promoted or supported along with unrelated political dissidents. Only recently have there been cautious and reluctant gestures towards what remains of avant-garde architecture still extant in Moscow and other Russian cities. These efforts, however tentative, are significant because little of the important movement of Constructivism remains today. Black and white photographs stand in for objects now lost and ideas never realized. Models of proposals exist but many plans remain on paper, preserving a poignant record of an artistic desire to change society. When one moves beyond the photographs and drawings and asks the pointed question—what has survived? Unfamiliar names emerge, standing alongside that of the leading Constructivist, Vladimir Tatlin. One could argue that it was Konstantin Melnikov (1890-1974), who left the most extensive record of the Constructivist and architectural avant-garde behind in a scattering of remarkable buildings still standing, and in the memory of his grand prize at the Paris Exposition of industrial design in 1925, won for the Soviet Pavilion. Like many of the Russian Constructivist movement, the architect Melnikov taught at the Vkhutemas school, but by 1925, he had separated himself from the institution. His desire to combine his dedication to the Revolution with his assertion that the individual should also assert him or herself in works of art led Melnikov to start the New Academy at the school as a separate program but he was marginalized when his department was absorbed into the Academic workshop.

In 1925, artists, Rodchenko, Tatlin, filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein, and architect Konstantin Melnikov came together to display the Constructivist philosophy and practice at the World’s Fair in Paris in 1925. Now an independent artist, Melnikov became the architect for the Soviet Pavilion in Paris. It was here, at the heart of an Exposition that would later be thought of as the home of a new decorative movement, Art Deco, that Constructivism was manifested for the world in terms of a building, a workers’ club and a symbol of the Revolution. If the Constructivists had introduced themselves in the New Russia Exhibition in Berlin, their philosophy of new architecture was viewed and experienced by the thousands who attended the Fair, most of whom were seeing the Russian Revolution in action for the first time, alive and well at Melnikov’s remarkable Soviet Pavilion. The Pavilion itself was one of the first manifestations of what would be a short experiment in avant-garde radical architecture. Once Stalin was firmly established in power, those days of optimism came to an end to be quickly replaced with a very different vision of the task of architects. Writing in 1932, when Russia was in the grip of totalitarianism, Hans Schmidt explained in “The Soviet Union and Modern Architecture” what had happened after the Soviet Pavilion had won acclaim:

Unlike their Western colleagues, the Russian architects had no opportunity to acquire new skills by dealing with the problem of the working class dwelling or the middle-class house. The victory of the October Revolution brought to the forefront a number of young architects who identified with the aims of the Revolution. Taking up the cudgel in the fight with the older generation of architects, they apparently were bringing about the triumph of modern architecture. At a time when relatively very little construction could actually be realized in the Soviet Union, this young and technically inexperienced generation devoted all its energies to utopian projects, in many cases outstripping the real situation of revolutionary development by decades.

As shall be discussed in the next post, the Soviet Pavilion was a triumph of a “utopian project” build to display the designs of a new generation for their nation. But Melnikov’s was a fleeting moment and, in a very few years after the Paris Exposition, the plans for an avant-garde architecture would be halted. As Schmidt noted,

This defeat was rendered even more poignant in a situation which manifested itself by revealing an important difference between the West on the one hand and the Soviet Union on the other. In the West, the principles of free competition apply up to a certain point even in the field of the arts. In Soviet Russia, however, all ideas are expected to be subordinate to and integrated into the mainstream of the Revolution. As things stand now, modern architecture has gambled away its chance, at least for the time being. Even the broad masses and youth have joined the ranks of the general opposition. What is even worse, though, is the fact that the modern movement in architecture has presently run into a closed ideological front ranged against it.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

[email protected]